Lives Lived: Hard work, family and success

My father witnessed an event in August of 1950 which affected his life forever and ultimately played a large part in the opening of my parents’ first safety footwear store in 1972.

Working as a laborer in a construction site that day, Frank Colantonio saw an older, experienced man die due to a frayed extension cord which found its way into a puddle. You see, my father had noticed the extension cord close to the puddle earlier in the morning. Instead of saying something he decided to keep his mouth shut because who was he, a new immigrant from Italy, to tell an experienced older man how to go about his work? That horrible experience taught young Frank two things. First, workplace safety is all about prevention and training. Secondly, never sit on your hands when speaking up is the right thing to do.

My father spent many years on the job site, working in disorganized, dangerous situations for little money during the 1950’s. As immigration boomed so did Toronto, and as a result there were lots of jobs. The problem was that the money always didn’t flow down to the workers like it should have.

The beginning of Frank Colantonio’s life in our great country was not that different from that of most immigrants in the 1950’s. He served in the army at home, came here as a young man alone and with no money, earned enough to bring his young bride over to Canada, then started a family and bought a house.

It was the path that ‘chose him’ in the mid-1950’s which made my dad’s life journey a little different. He was recruited to be a grass roots organizer for the Carpenters’ Union and from that point forward he supported his family by using his words, not his hands.

My father was known for his integrity, independent thinking and his ability to lead and inspire. He was friendly, polite and respectful and he worked hard to learn the language so that he could be a contributing member of Canadian society. It was all these characteristics which took him on a professional adventure with the unions as they gained strength, as a case administrator for the Italian Immigrant Aid Society, and as a safety instructor with the Construction Safety Association.

In the unions, Frank tried to make a real difference for people in difficult work situations (of which he was intimately familiar), while staying away from the fray of the politics. Eventually, he decided to go in another direction, working directly with immigrants coming to Canada. So he got a chance to help workers and their families in a different way, as part of the Italian Immigrant Aid Society. Later he created a course and trained workers on workplace safety.

This fulfilling work involved much travel, many meetings and long days but he got great satisfaction from the work.

Meanwhile, my mother Nella was working while raising a family and maintaining a home. Mom is a very strong and independent woman with tremendous courage of conviction and sense of accomplishment. It was her personal experience and work-life success that formed the other seed of what became Mister Safety Shoes.

In the late 1960’s Mom worked her way up at Steinberg’s in Rexdale. As a result, when Steinberg’s closed the plant in 1970, she had a small amount of money which she could use to start a business. Her father was the village shoemaker in Italy so she leveraged this experience and started a family shoe store in Toronto. While she had no marketing experience, she did have a knack for quickly judging the tastes of well as a feel for what they could afford. So for two years she kept the house and managed the store which was open 6 days a week. Dad helped as much as he could and worked on Saturdays but his travel and meetings left little other time.

So despite the success of the store, Mom came to a decision point in 1972. She told my father that the combination of the store and her family responsibilities was wearing her too thin. Either he would join her at the store or she would close it down. Dad agreed to join her at the store on one condition. The condition was that they would no longer sell “fancy” shoes for women and children but instead they would focus on selling boots. This was fine with Mom; she just wanted him at the store. So the store was transitioned from family shoes to a dedicated safety store.

That is how Frank and Nella Colantonio got into the safety footwear business. They renamed that store “Safety Shoes and Equipment Centre” and Dad leveraged his safety knowledge and construction contacts to create the value proposition and get customers. The new store created a channel to the immigrant construction workers, a fact recognized by a major footwear manufacturer in Canada that knew this was a market it wasn’t servicing at the time and that saw something special in Frank and Nella. As a result, Dad was able to negotiate best customer pricing to make the new store price competitive.

Not long after, word got around that “Safety Shoes and Equipment Centre” had great products at great prices. However it was direct input from the customers that lead to the real innovation. Mom and Dad would hear from construction customers that it was hard to find the Canadian Safety Standard boots required by law and difficult to make the time to get there. So they bought a truck and became the first to provide mobile service to the construction industry. The competitive pricing also allowed them to land the Air Canada account. They were “off to the races”!

In 1978, growth forced Mom and Dad to a larger location at Finch and Weston Road. They took advantage of this opportunity to re-brand the business as Mister Safety Shoes. This location has since evolved and expanded and remains our head office

The rest is history. Mister Safety Shoes continues to grow. We now proudly boast 15 retail stores and 17 Shoemobiles in Ontario.

As you now understand, Mister Safety Shoes was born from a base of knowledge, experience and integrity. Today our advantage remains service and expertise which allow us to deliver safety, style and comfort to our clients. I am very proud that the foundation set by my parents’ hard work is still the base of Mister Safety Shoes today.

After graduating from Engineering at the University of Toronto I worked for the Canadian Standards Association. However, I decided to join the family business and gradually took over in the late 1980’s to build on Frank and Nella Colantonio’s success...and I am really glad I did.

We hope to see you soon in our stores.


John Colantonio